When 15-year-old Euphronia Knill told her parents she was planning to take a trip to Nicaragua, they flipped.
"I said, are you out of your mind? There's a war going on," Euphronia's mother, Planaria Price, said. "Her father was livid."
But they eventually came around, and Euphronia joined 13 other Westside teen-agers on an 8-day visit last month to the Central American country.
For many teen-agers from relatively well-to-do Westside families, childhood is a generally carefree time; the biggest problems may involve what college to go to and how to get money for the newest compact disc.
Transplant these kids to war-weary Nicaragua, and what they see surprises them: children their own age--sometimes younger--are carrying guns, fighting wars, caring for orphaned or abandoned siblings.
"The kids grow up so fast there," Euphronia, a student at the private Oakwood School in North Hollywood, said.
"I saw this little girl who was carrying her younger sister or brother, and they were both so close to the floor; it just seemed like the baby was half as big as she was, and she was carrying it. It just made me feel so bad, because she had all this responsibility, and I think childhood should be a really important time, I mean, we're enjoying ours. . . "
"They don't have much of a childhood," added Marcel Menard, 15, a student at the Center for Enriched Studies, who also went on the trip.
"I'd see girls . . . carrying their baby sisters, probably feeding them while the mother is at work. So it's almost like they became a mother while they're still a child."
The trip was arranged by the Office of the Americas, a Santa Monica-based peace organization that opposes U.S. policy in Central America. Office of the Americas leads about 10 delegations a year to Nicaragua, but this was only the second time it organized a group so young.
Executive Director Theresa Bonpane, who has made numerous trips to Central America, led the group along with Phyllis Menard, Marcel's mother.
Met Young Soldiers
At one point, on the shore at Lake Xiloa, a popular resort outside Managua, the kids met a group of Sandinista soldiers.
"The youngest one there was 15. Incredible," said Robby Chambliss, 17, of Hamilton High School. "We played with them, built a human pyramid. . . . It was one of the greatest things on the trip."
On the same beach a few minutes later, they ran into a group of U.S. Marines, taking a break from their duty at the U.S. Embassy.
Meeting the young Sandinista soldiers left a lasting impression on Euphronia. She thought back to them a few days later when some of her friends were having a pillow fight.
"I was just thinking how the soldiers who were the same age, maybe even a little younger and older, and they're in the mountains fighting and they should be having pillow fights, too. But they're not. They're fighting for their lives. It made me angry, and that really got to me."
The visitors to Nicaragua also said they were impressed by the value their counterparts placed on education. They visited a high school in Matagalpa, a town north of Managua, to talk to the students. The contrast between the Nicaraguan school--no electricity, doors or supplies--and any of the schools the Southern Californians attend was dramatic.
Attitudes on Education
"The thing that probably impressed me the most was the determination that the students have at the high schools," said Neile Rissmiller, 17, who attends Santa Monica College.
"I mean, regardless of everything that was going on in their country, they had so much will to get their education and survive, you know. It really struck me."
"Here, people think it's like punishment to have to go to school, and there, they just go to school because they want to and (they) keep on going and keep on going," added Justin Horner, 15.
In addition to schools, the group visited a shoe factory in the town of Masaya, the National Assembly, a coffee cooperative near Matagalpa, a child-care center and a peasant Mass.
The visit also put a face of cold reality on what is often a distant war.
"It scared me a little bit because at the lake (meeting the soldiers) we were playing and sitting there, and we all lined up and were introducing ourselves," said Justin, who attends Santa Monica High School.
"And I was looking over, and just the fact that in two weeks, you know that only three of these people might be alive. You even know that when you're up here (in the U.S.), but it's just the fact that you're down there, and you can look at a group of people, and you're not just saying that."
Blase Bonpane Jr., the son of Theresa Bonpane and her husband Blase, director of Office of the Americas, admired the spirit of the people that seemed to persevere.